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All Hail Hemp

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Rare is the opportunity for a new fiber to captivate an entire marketplace, but rarer still is a commitment to build a contemporary supply chain from the ground up based on the principles of regenerative agriculture and responsible practices. But that’s what’s happening these days on farms, in processing plants and during meetings with brands’ product development teams when it comes to hemp.

Presentations from an array of speakers at the recent Evolving Textiles Conference provided an overview of both the progress being made and the problems that exist in efforts to establish a viable, profitable and sustainable domestic hemp industry. Key takeaways that emerged during discussions hosted by NC State University include: 

• Farmers play a critical role in the burgeoning domestic hemp textile landscape.

• Leveraging dollars and determination to address challenges is necessary to advance.

• Industry is onboard with hemp textiles, but are consumers along for the ride? “HempUcation” is a new buzzword. 

Hemp textile fiber enthusiasm is not limited to the Southeast U.S; hemp hubs are taking shape in Montana, Kentucky and Texas. Further afield, hemp is a hot topic for podcasters featuring eco pioneers, and hemp previewed on the Performance Days speaker agenda for the April Performance Days trade fair in Munich. 

Taking a Farm-First Approach 

Hemp has the chance to be different, because the focus is on the farmer, explained Gary Sikes of Bountiful Harvest, who shared his perspective as a farmer growing hemp for textiles in North Carolina. His talk updated the Evolving Textiles audience on the strides made, and set-backs experienced, during the past five years. Sikes explained current needs as better harvesting equipment; better understanding of seed genetics to grow seed in the Southeast and for the price of hemp to be competitive with commodity crops. Nonetheless Sikes remains upbeat: “What I’m most excited about is regenerative farming and growing hemp without chemicals.” 

“We need to elevate farmers and celebrate their work, because the product comes from the seed and goes all the way to fashion,” stated Marci Zaroff, who has worked extensively in the sustainability sector for 30 years. “It’s about how to leverage the power of fashion to drive the expansion of regenerative organic agriculture.”

Zaroff, interviewed on the podcast Hemp Talks, explained the challenges she faced when importing hemp for her Under the Canopy apparel brand several years ago. “The processing was heavy chemicals and the single question I was asked most about my apparel was, ‘can you smoke it after you wear it?’” 

Zaroff’s latest endeavor is opening a factory of the future in Louisiana, built on a “hemp campus,” with her business division devoted to fiber and textile manufacturing. Other divisions will complete a vertical supply chain to offer a hemp ecosystem. Called “Renaissance,” the project with strategic partnerships is slated for 2023/24 completion. 

“All the brands are making commitments to carbon zero, and hemp is right there, at the forefront, as a solution. And now it’s being done in the states,” Zaroff concluded. 

Infrastructure & Industry Funding

Processing, however, remains a big challenge, according to Larry Smart, a professor at the School of Integrative Plant Science at Cornell University and associate director of Cornell AgriTech in Geneva, NY. “We need more equipment processors nearby farmers to ease transportation costs. The goal is to have a decordicator in every county,” said Smart, who points out that the cost of production is going up, seed costs may rise and the price of fertilizer is skyrocketing. Hemp execs are looking to leverage $5M from the Hemp Foundation to address these obstacles and accelerate the industry forward. 

Guy Carpenter, founder of Bear Fiber, Inc., and a leader in the domestic hemp movement for decades noted that short staple spinning of textile grade hemp fiber remains problematic because of the non-uniformity of the fiber currently being grown. “We’re not there yet in the U.S. in terms of consistency, but I’m confident we will get there,” said Carpenter. 

Making hemp a mainstream commodity is the end game. Even though China has been focused on hemp longer, for Carpenter and others in the hemp community the goal is to do it better, faster and at a higher quality here in the States. A member of the NC-based Industrial Hemp Commission, Carpenter is currently running fiber blend trials at the Zeis Textile Extension Lab at the Wilson College of Textiles at NCSU. 

The Next Frontier for Hemp 

While the excitement around hemp and regenerative farming is contagious, price issues and infrastructure need to be addressed to take hemp to the next frontier. Taimour Azhar, CEO of The Hempville, based in Siler City, NC, is keen to get corporations on board. “The next piece of the target is Fortune 500 companies. We can show businesses the potential and the product and explain how hemp will ultimately provide benefits all the way back to the farmers and further back to ultimately benefit the land.” 

Mark Andrew Sunderland, a VP at Hemp Black, highlights development of better hemp fabric. “We are making strides creating something new, and moving away from hemp characterized as a scratchy, can I smoke my t-shirt type fiber, to a tech driven material.” 

Zaroff suggests that hemp build on the “who made my clothes” movement. “We need to connect the source to the story, and offer digital traceability and quality credibility around hemp. This will engage consumers to go on this journey with us.” 

At the end of the day, why hemp? According to hemp growers, processors and product makers, in a textile industry that values newness, hemp offers not only a new opportunity for growth, but a new green growth opportunity.

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May 31, 2022

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